Make the Arctic a land of opportunity, not a new Far West

As the global climate changes, the Arctic gets increasingly accessible. Receding ice opens navigational ways to commerce and to the very appealing potentials of the region’s natural resources. If these fascinating new promises make the bordering states see the North Pole as a new Klondike, the contested territorial waters and the blurry Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) rather brand this region as the new Far West.

This is no news, of course, as we have been hearing about the arctic increasingly in the last couple of years. Its economic attractions has put it back on the map and we’ve seen a shift from low-key arctic negotiations dedicated to strengthening the indigenous inhabitants or increasing environmental awareness, to a nationalistic clash between a few members of the Arctic Council. The claim by Canada’s premier that the North Pole is Canadian has been echoed by Russia. After having planted their flag in the North Pole in 2007, Russia sent a nuclear (powered and missile-carrying) submarine in early 2014 to plant their flag on the North Pole’s seabed, mainly to spite Canada. Assertive territorial claims over the Arctic could lead to a new international Far West with Darwinian features.

In 2008, the five bordering states of the Arctic Council[1], agreed that in case of overlapping problems in the demarcation of territorial sovereignty, they would use the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)[2]. The fascinating evolution of the stakeholders’ discourses, swinging between a cooperative to a militarized approach, will define the region’s future. With so many similar stakes, and the stakes are high, is it possible for cooperation to prevail? Can sovereignty, geopolitics, economics and security be conjugated in a diplomatic manner, with so many players?

An unlikely zone of cooperation

The Arctic has long been a lost frontier, an uncharted territory. While it fascinated explorers and scientist, it increasingly worried the northern countries during the Second World War. Nonetheless, following the 1991 Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, the eight bordering nations, decided to unite in the creation of the Arctic Council[3], to address the common issues vis-à-vis the region. This body stemmed from the idea brought forward in speeches respectively by Gorbachev in 1987[4] and Canada’s Prime Minister Mulroney in 1989, promoting the idea that peaceful regional governance would be in everybody’s best interest.

At its inception in 1996, the Council was a timid body, with very few resources and credibility. It slowly created the ramifications it needed to achieve its regional goals. The key to this unlikely cooperation, at the pivotal point that was the end of the Cold War, lies in the careful choice of challenges they decided to confront jointly. These are mainly focused on environmental aspects. Six working groups were created to oversee a sustainable development of the local population, the flora and fauna and the general environmental concerns such as pollution and marine environment. Recently, the creation of the Arctic Economic Council, an independent body, finally brought forward a platform to discuss the business side of the region. The Arctic cooperation has indubitably allowed a continued cooperation, which not only bared fruits in the spheres it covers, but also set a precedent on how to cooperate and use diplomacy in overseeing the governance of one of Earth’s last untapped territory.

However good this cooperation may be, it kept a superficial effect since one crucial topic has always been purposefully set aside. The Military. Excluding this issue has been the easy solution to dodge the stalemate that would’ve inevitably result from a geo-military discussion between five NATO members and Russia. Today, military involvement is internally and independently debated in all the bordering countries, evoking national security and sovereignty. A share of the members has been slowly pushing for the inclusion of the military argument, but the rest of them are either skeptic or refuse entirely, because a continuing military-free Arctic cooperation gives them the leeway they so need in imposing their own agenda for the region. It is clear, from so many viewpoints, that both sides have an interest in changing the name of the game by introducing this crucial theme to address peacefully the elephant in the room. The result would be a civilized and mutually beneficial approach to this El Dorado, but a failure to do so could have inexplicable consequences.

Militarization and geopolitics: Geography still matters

Out of the eight member states of the Arctic Council, only a few have an open militarized attitude. Russia and the United States, still hung up in their Realist and Game[5] theories of international relations, embedded in their elites’ culture since the two Great Wars, are seeing this region has a new Klondike, up for grabs. Lessons learned over the years have pushed them to act accordingly. Russia, feeling evermore confined by NATO, senses the need to protect its interests, while directly competing against the USA’s hard and soft powers. The latter uses the pretext to uphold and defend (almost) internationally accepted democratic values, spearheaded by Liberty itself, to push forward, with the help of its allies, its national security zone, while rubbernecking the region in its quest to reach energy autonomy.

Recent events across the globe would give reason to the Realist theory maintaining that military superiority is an undeniable (if not the most important) political advantage in international disputes. This is especially true in a geopolitical row, something the Arctic conundrum could easily evolve into. The most recent case in point being Crimea’s annexation by Russia, earlier this year, or China’s maritime boundary row with Vietnam over the disputed Spratlys islands, where China has started to drill from its oilrigs inside Vietnam’s EEZ. These scot-free feats of strength from China and Russia prove two things: Military superiority does skew the playing field; and geography still matters.

Yes, geography still matters. Nations need clear demarcations of their territory over which they can impose control and retain the monopoly of force in order to safeguard sovereignty, security and economic autonomy. The latter is especially important in this restless energy-consuming era. Possessing the resources changes the relation between States, as the on-going Russia-EU arm-wrestling over Crimea, or the multiple row in the South China Sea showcase. The Global intelligence firm Stratfor estimated that China has fished in foreign Southeast Asia waters “nearly a million metric tons of fish, worth $2,45 billion each year between 2000 to 2011”[6]. And so far China has got away with it. Similarly, possessing the resources also gives the government an edge at the national level, mostly for popularity and credibility, and remarkably so in the current wave of economic recessions and austerity measures prevalent across the globe.

China’s booming economy is increasingly pressing it to expand its maritime routes, which quickly becomes a necessity and thus, a matter of national security. This problematic maritime quarrel over Southeast Asia sea-lanes can be easily transported to the Arctic. Undeniably, the Arctic Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage, connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, can halve transportation time for cargos between Europe, Asia and North America. Evidently, controlling these routes with the option of charging a toll on each vessel, and developing the ports and consequently the local economy, are appealing scenarios for bordering countries. Geography still matters.

Source: ArticEcon

And yes, Military superiority skews the playing field. A superpower can bend a smaller nation’s will or impose its demands over them, but in this globalized world this does not come without a cost. Economic interdependence is a predominant force in international relations nowadays, especially in the present economy. A typical example is the common economical sanctions imposed on Russia by the West. Although the EU has a reluctance enforcing such measures due to their dependence on Russian oil, these sanctions hurt Russia’s economy on a short term while they last, but on the long run too, by fast forwarding its clients plans to diversify their gas and oil sources in order to lower their dependence on such an unpredictable partner. Military bullying comes at an expensive cost indeed. China is bound to feel a similar pressure soon enough.

Apart from the two superpowers, Canada has also recently adopted a militarized attitude towards the region. The country has made a turnaround on its international values and priorities lately. Its peaceful and accommodating attitude has evolved to a belligerent one surprising many, both internationally and locally. Its aggressive discourse against Russia and President Putin, its military attitude and its presumed entitlement to the North Pole, after agreeing that UNCLOS would overrule in case of overlapping claims, are only a few of its new positioning. Canada has two way to go about this and it should tread carefully when choosing its path to the Arctic, it may have grater impacts than the mere reach to the Pole.

Why cooperation is bigger than militarization

To state the obvious, demilitarizing the arctic and dealing in terms of diplomacy minimizes the chances of conflict and creates a zone of opportunity for the many, not a select few who have the military capacity to conquer and occupy. The debate over economic cost and benefits of waging war will be for another time, but one thing is certain, History as thought us that military conquest over a territory is no guarantee of perpetuity.

Of course territorial sovereignty is vital and it has to be protected. However, given the existing disputes over boundaries in the Arctic Circle, defining the exact demarcations of a territory is the most pressing matter. Whether to justify territorial sovereignty or economic exclusivity over the potential resources, land grab is undoubtedly the most important (and slippery) debate between Arctic States. Territory disagreements are twofold: the immediate borders between States leading up to the Arctic and the reaches of everyone’s territory in the Arctic, represented by the EEZ or the Continental shelf (See map BBC map below).[7] Yet, this task shouldn’t be fought out or strong-armed, but rather be generally agreed upon and recognized. Indeed, global recognition grants an undeniable status of sovereignty in international relations, which will dictates the future relations and set standards.

If we accept this fact, the task at hand now is to properly delimit the borders by establishing where one Nation’s continental shelf and EEZ ends and where the next begins. Some Arctic neighbors like the USA and Canada chose cooperation over dispute. By sponsoring a joint geological survey of the continental shelf and seabed in the Beaufort Sea, they are reaching a just settlement following the UN Law of the Sea. This may not only prevent imminent and long-term disputes between these two important partners, but will lower the cost of such needed enterprises.

Scientific cooperation has immense potential benefits. Example of scientific international cooperation successes are countless, such as the Large Hadron Collider at the European Centre for Nuclear Research, which has probably made our millennium’s most remarkable leap in Particle Physics by discovering a particle matching the Higgs boson’s description. International cooperation is a necessity in the advancement of science and research, for evident reasons we don’t have to name. The Arctic is no exception.

This uncharted territory needs an international scientific collaboration at a wide array of levels. It holds data to the planets past ingrained in layers upon layers of precipitation that turned to ice. Equally important is the study of its waters, the flora and fauna and their evolution and vulnerabilities, needed to fashion a sustainable strategy for its development. Maybe more importantly for some, scientific and corporate cooperation will be useful in evaluating the regions’ resources and its potentials and, again, reduce its cost and effectiveness.

Safety and security is also a matter to be dealt with. The opening of seaways to commerce in the Northwest Passage and other routes will increase safety and security concerns exponentially as the number of ships will circumnavigate the Arctic. Presently, international flights transport over 90.000 passengers over Canada’s arctic alone every day, which is about the same size as the population living in that area and there is no way the Canadian or U.S. Coast Guards can guarantee an effective rescue even in summer time. When cargos and tankers will use this region as the rest of the oceans, security will be a pressing matter to be dealt with by all countries. Cooperation will be a key issue to resolve this matter.

Finally it is imperative for members of the Arctic Council to work together and cooperate in resolving their disputes, for the simple fact that this will create a precedent, which will be needed to confront the non-arctic states’ demands and claims. It is obvious that other countries are also zeroing on the Arctic. Not having any arctic frontier doesn’t stop China from building a major icebreaker. Other countries will want a part of the cake and they will be increasingly insistent. As a matter of fact, 12 non-arctic countries have been added as observers to the Arctic Council, such as India, China, Germany, the UK and Japan. These big economies will keep pushing to get access to this land of plenty.

Protecting each country’s EEZ is not a zero-sum game, meaning one side wins and the other loses. The creation and successes of the six working groups of the Arctic Council are great examples of what can be collectively achieved in the region. International Law expert Michael Byers has characterized the “present” Arctic has the highest zone of cooperation on Earth.[8] Once again, collaboration increases exponentially the chances of advancement in a wide array of fields, namely economic, scientific and developmental. The same goes for the speed in achieving these results. Cooperation has been proven to work in the region and it is imperative that it keeps on going and evolving by incorporating military cooperation. The stakes are high and will only get higher with the rest of the world looming on the Arctic.

* For more information and great data on the Arctic:


[1] The Arctic Council consists of the eight countries within the Arctic Circle: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Of those, only Sweden and Finland do not have an immediate border with the region.

[2] UNCLOS specifically defines the maritime borders and the countries’ rights and regulations over the different borders (territorial waters, Exclusive Economic Zone and the continental shelf).



[5] Realism describes international relations as an anarchical environment where every country needs to be ready to use economical, political and military threats to protect itself. Egoism and Power are the only viable tools to survive.

[6] Stratfor :

[7] Of the former, only the Russian USA border in the Bering Sea is fully settled up to the Arctic, the others are still under discussion.


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